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The makings of a great retail CEO

bigstock-Leader-And-Ceo-101287331What makes a truly great retail CEO? An awfully difficult question in 2016. The range of skills required in, say, the 80s, were quite different to those needed today. Expectations of retail leaders are now far greater due to significant changes in the retail environment largely spurred by technology.   There are those who say that these days good retail leaders do not need to have a retail background. Those who work in finance, logistics and IT possess the new skills required of retail chief executives. Baloney!

I have recently written about Edcon (Edgars) in South Africa and the diabolical situation in which they now find themselves. They are virtually bankrupt. The intrepid Bernie Brookes is at the helm and not doing terribly well. He appears to be spending much of his time involved in the financial restructuring of the company – something I would have thought would be best left to more qualified people.

Part, in fact all, of being a good CEO, whether retail or otherwise, is the ability to prioritise and manage time effectively. Bernie spent an inordinate amount of time on the speaking circuit when he was with Myer. Richard Umbers, the current CEO at Myer, seems to be following in his footsteps. With the significant challenges faced today, CEOs cannot afford ego stroking time on the podium.

A good retail CEO needs to surround him/herself with good people in the specialised areas and to focus on retail. Taking a financial guru and/or a big four firm to handle financial restructuring while keeping a watchful eye, is imminently preferable to getting personally involved in the nitty gritty. The same applies to technology, which is a huge issue and requires specialised skills.

This is not to say that someone with a financial or IT background does not possess the skills to become a retail CEO, but they have to be prepared to turn the page and to think and behave like a merchant. And to think like a customer.

I worked at Edgars in the late 80s. The CEO at the time was Vic Hammond. At a product review, he could tell from a mile away whether the denim on show was 10 oz or 13 oz or 16 oz. He knew retail. He knew his products and above all, he knew his customer.

Fast forward to the late 90s when I met two experienced Edgars’ directors passing through Jakarta. South Africa was still undergoing significant change. Both directors were despondent and I asked why. They replied that they no longer knew who their customer was. A shocking indictment on the then CEO. This is what retail leadership is about. Knowing your customer and having the right merchandise. And not mucking about on complex financial restructuring and making yourself famous on the speaking merry go round.

Stuart Bennie is a retail consultant at Impact Retailing and can be contacted at or 0414 631 702.

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